Science as ‘Not Religion’: The History of the Conflict Construct (Part One)


Top left: Portrait of Galileo; Top right: Photo of NASA’s Galileo probe; Bottom left: Artistic depiction of NASA’s Galileo orbiter as it arrived at Jupiter in 1995; Bottom right: Galileo’s tomb in Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. [credit: public domain, Wikimedia commons] 

In regard to religion in the public sphere, the infamous atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins states, “The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science …”[1] Implicit in this statement is the idea that religion and science are in conflict and this is a presupposition that runs deep in contemporary society. When I tell people I study religion and science, the majority of the time I get similar responses of surprise and confusion about the pairing, followed up by a quick question regarding the inherent conflict between the two. Although this ‘conflict thesis’ is largely doubted by specialists, it continues to hold sway over popular perceptions, prevalent in the media and among academics in many fields. For example, a quick scan of news headlines relating to religion and science in the past few months is revelatory: “Widening the Bridge Between Religion and Science”;[2] “Science and Religion — An Impossible Match?”;[3] “Religion and Science Mix …”[4] Whether religion and science mix, match, meet, or not at all depend on an initial idea of separation, of two distinct things interacting. When we discuss ‘conflict’ in the field, it is not about warfare exactly — at least not exclusively —, but inherent conflict or this fundamental separation. Ideas of ‘conflict’ between religion and science date long before the time of Ian Barbour’s work, yet Barbour is the buzzword when it comes to the conflict thesis.[5] This is because, even though he supported dialogue and (some) integration of religion and science, his widely influential taxonomy of the religion-science relationship “forces an ontological separation.”[6] Put differently, religion and science are framed as fundamentally distinct. As I’ve illustrated, he is not alone in this assumption.

This prevalence of assumed conflict is despite the fact that many scholars have pointed to counterexamples of discursive entanglements,[7] integrative movements,[8] and the “unbound and fluid extensions” of these categories[9] — a topic I will return to in future posts. So we might ask: where is this idea of conflict coming from? When scholars, like Barbour, look at the religion-science relationship, the story often begins with Galileo’s trial under the Catholic Church (1663), referenced in religion-science discussions from the seventeenth century to today. And yet we cannot conclude that Galileo’s contemporaries conceptualized religion and science as in conflict. At this time, religion and science were still in many ways regarded as part of a unified worldview. This has some roots in the Medieval worldview, under which “[s]cience, cosmology, society, history, and theology all expressed the same pattern of meaning.”[10]  Moreover, to apply the term ‘conflict’ is an anachronistic use of the term; it was not part of the vocabulary of Galileo’s contemporaries.[11] Thus the Galileo case cannot be regarded as exemplary of religion-science conflict, at least not in the historical sense. Yet, the conflict construct does represent a historical trend in the realm of ideas to conceptualize religion and science as binaries, a trend that was not always around. 

“The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”


Painting of Galileo Galilei introducing Leonardo Donato to his telescope. Notice the stance of the clergymen, frowning in apparent disapproval. [credit: public domain, Wikimedia commons]

When Galileo states (quoting Cardinal Baronius) “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes,” he is in some ways departing from the Medieval unified view of knowledge. Because of this, he is a good example of this newly emerging intellectual trend of the religion-science binary — which is discursively related to ‘conflict,’ as I will demonstrate over this two-part post. In the Middle Ages, causality was conceived in terms of ‘final causes,’ the end goal of an event or its ‘purpose,’ and ‘formal causes’ or innate tendencies. Science at this time was not an autonomous field, but a branch of philosophy, and scientific investigation of causality was a search for the purpose of objects as placed in a cosmic hierarchy, “the creation of a purposeful God.”[13] Hence when Galileo puts religion and science in oppositional positions based on a notion of scientific causality describing ‘how things go,’ he, among others, broke apart the Medieval unified ‘pattern of meaning.’ In this process of conceptualizing ‘science’ as a distinct field — an ongoing process — it was frequently specifically defined in negative relation to religion as a means to carve out interpretive space in earlier worldviews. Religion and science are widely negatively correlated from around the time of Galileo on. This does not suggest though that this is a historical basis for physical or empirical conflict; on the contrary, it indicates that the religion-science binary, i.e. fundamental separation, was a newly emerging idea of the religion-science relationship.

Notice how my explanation of the Galileo case does apply the term ‘conflict,’ but rather refers to binaries and opposition. This terminology is more appropriate for the time and represents the historical construction of the discourse on ‘conflict,’ an idea that came to be entangled with these aforementioned terms. Allow me to demonstrate. As the concept of ‘science’ slowly emerged (the first known use of this Middle English term was in the fourteenth century), it was increasingly defined as ‘not religion,’ employing various descriptors to distinguish the two as binaries. During the era of the so-called Enlightenment, ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ were increasingly associated with science, and in the tradition of negative correlation with religion, religion was defined as the Other, ‘superstitious’ and ‘irrational.’ For example, Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751–1772) promoted science in three main ways besides recording knowledge about the natural world — praised as a rational, coherent, and non-prejudice system.[14] Diderot argues that truth and science together make a whole and, as such, acts as a weapon against ‘blind faith’ and abuse of religion in the form of ‘superstition.’[15] Thus this formulation contributed to placing science against religion, equating this with truth versus superstition. Similarly, Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations (1776), argued: “Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.”[16] Thomas Paine in his Age of Reason (1794–1807) points to the abuse of science in the form of superstition, juxtaposing it with religion: “There is scarcely any part of science, or anything in nature, which those impostors and blasphemers of science, called priests […] have not, at some time or other, perverted, or sought to pervert to the purpose of superstition and falsehood.”[17] Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) distinguished between the realm of religion and that of (natural) scientific inquiry, arguing the two constitute distinct methods, systems, and knowledge.[18] Science describes the natural world, while religion is consigned to the sphere of morality and ethics — a major break from the earlier Medieval view of God as author of Nature. Kant’s idea of separate spheres of religion and science continued in the later thought of existentialists (Søren Kierkegaard and his successors) and continues to echo through the years in the common sentiment that science is about facts (or ‘how’ questions) and religion is about values (or ‘why’ questions).

Continue reading Part Two of “Science as ‘Not Religion’” to see how the conflict thesis contributed to the social and political success of science and the rest of the religion-science binary story.



1. Richard Dawkins Foundation
2. Johnson.
3. “NEXT: Science and Religion”
4. Morgan.
5. This is despite the fact that John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1875) has historically been the main source for the conflict thesis. For Barbour’s conflict thesis, see Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (1998), a revised and expanded edition of Religion in an Age of Science (1989–1991).
6. Cantor and Kenny 769.
7. See von Stuckrad 2013a and von Stuckrad 2013b.
8. Examples are ubiquitous, ranging from the scholarly to the amateur. See for example Esbjörn-Hargens and Wilber; Wilber; Geraci; McFarlane; and Polkinghorne.
9. Cantor and Kenny 771.
10. Barbour 1998, 9. This characterization of the Medieval worldview is, of course, an oversimplification of a more complex historical situation in order to demonstrate an ever-evolving worldview.
11. Cantor and Kenny 767.
12. I refer to ’empirical historical evidence’ here to emphasize a distinction with the ‘history of ideas.’ Thus by ’empirical’ I mean the physical, material evidence, as oppose to conflict that is found in literature, the use of language, and in tacit knowledge.
13. Barbour 1998, 5.
14. Heilbron.
15. This characterization can be found in Heilbron, which does not give a direct reference. For equating ‘science’ and ‘truth’ and comments on ‘blind faith,’ see Diderot 1765, 608–614; for the description of ‘superstition’ as the abuse of religion, see Diderot 1751, xivii-li.  Although, note the binary was not so clear cut for Diderot.
16. Smith 82; also quoted in Griswold 11.
17. Lewis 128.
18. Kant.  This characterization simplifies a more complex view that did not wholly limit religion and science to their own spheres.



Barbour, Ian, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, revised and expanded ed. of Religion in an Age of Science (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

Barbour, Ian, Religion in an Age of Science. The Gifford Lectures, 1989–1991, Volume 1, (Aberdeen: HarperOne, 1989–1991).

Cantor, Geoffrey & Chris Kenny, “Barbour’s Fourfold Way: Problems with His Taxonomy of Science-Religion Relationships,” Zygon 36.4 (Dec. 2001), 765–781.

Diderot, Denis, “Detailed Explanation of the System of Human Knowledge,” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Richard N. Schwab and Walter E. Rex. Ann Arbor: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2009. (accessed 29 January 2014). Originally published as “Explication détaillée du système des connaissances humaines,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 1:xlvii-li (Paris, 1751).

Diderot, Denis (ascribed by Jacques Proust). “Pyrrhonic or Skeptical Philosophy.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer. Ann Arbor: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. (accessed 29 January 2014). Originally published as “Pyrrhonienne ou Sceptique,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 13:608–614 (Paris, 1765).

Esbjörn-Hargens, Sean, and Ken Wilber, “Toward a Comprehensive Integration of Science and Religion: A Post-metaphysical Approach,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson, eds. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 523–546.

Geraci, Robert M., “The Integration of Religion, Science, and Technology,” in Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press), 139–146.

Griswold, Charles L., Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Heilbron, J. L., “Natural Philosophy and Science,” in: Alan Charles Kors (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, online ed. (Oxford University Press, 2012), (accessed 4 June 2013).

Johnson, Bryce, “Widening the Bridge Between Religion and Science,” The Tibet Post International, 15 November 2013, (accessed 10 December 2013).

Kant, Immanuel, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason: And Other Writings, eds. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni, intro. by Robert Merrihew Adams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Lewis, Joseph, ed., Inspiration and Wisdom From the Writings of Thomas Paine: With Three Addresses on Thomas Paine, by Thomas Paine (New York: Freethought Press Association, 1954), 128.

McFarlane, Thomas, “A Genuine Integration of Science and Spirit,” blog, True Nature: Notes on Spirit and Science, 4 November 2006, (accessed 6 December 2013).

Morgan, Jack, “Religion and Science Mix in New Southwest School of Art Exhibit,” 15 November 2013, Texas Public Radio, (accessed 10 December 2013).

“NEXT: Science and Religion — An Impossible Match?” Press release for the event at The Crawford Family Forum, 11 December 2013, Southern California Public Radio, (accessed 10 December 2013).

Polikinghorne, John, “Integrating Science and Religion,” in Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy (New York and London: M. E. Sharpe), vol. 1, 7-17.

Richard Dawkins Foundation, “Save Our Secularism Alerts,” (accessed 3 March 2014).

Smith, Adam, Wealth of Nations, eds. Stephen Copley and Kathryn Sutherland (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995).

von Stuckrad, Kocku, “Secular Religion: A Discourse-historical Approach to Religion in Contemporary Western Europe,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 28.1 (2013a): 1–14.

von Stuckrad, Kocku, “‘What I Cannot Build I Cannot Understand’: Transgressive Discourses in Life Sciences and Synthetic Biology,” special issue “The Gods as Role Model in Western Tradition: Imitation, Divinization, Transgression,” Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 60.1 (2013b), 119–133.

Wilber, Ken, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion (New York: Random House, 1998).

Further Reading:

Dixon, Thomas, Geoffrey Cantor, & Stephen Pumphrey (eds.), Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Draper, John William, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1875), Project Gutenberg, (accessed 6 December 2013).

Hedley Brooke, John, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Meyer, Stephen, “The Demarcation of Science and Religion,” in: Gary B. Ferngren, Edward J. Larson, & Darrel W. Amundsen (eds.), The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 2000).



6 thoughts on “Science as ‘Not Religion’: The History of the Conflict Construct (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Science as ‘Not Religion’: The History of the Conflict Construct (Part Two) | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

  2. Pingback: A View from Everywhere: Metacognition & the Limits of Reflection | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

  3. Pingback: Conflict with the Conflict Thesis: Complicating the Religion-Science Dichotomy | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

  4. Pingback: ‘Religion-and-Science’: Complicating the Pairing | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

  5. Pingback: The Discursive Construction of Knowledge | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

  6. Pingback: God on the Brain: Part Three | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

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